Terrorists: can we trust them? • 9 September 2008 • The SnowBlog
Terrorists: can we trust them?
For terrorism to be effective, it has to scare a lot of people. Terrorism must cause people to quake in their boots and threaten to vote differently otherwise it's shoddy and poor quality. Thus making fun of terrorism is a good thing. Our momentary amusement reduces our terror levels and makes us less likely to do what the terrorists want. (That said, it's still a good idea to also have a few police looking into the problem - laughter, though a powerful medicine, is rubbish at detective work). With that in mind, I wanted to share with you my concern about the gentleman's agreement the US and UK governments have with Al Qaida (and affiliates) that the focus of future attacks will be passenger aircraft. We've already seen one act of bad faith in London, where tube trains and buses were targeted, as well as the terrible Madrid bombings which affected trains. Can we really trust Al Qaida to keep their word?
Take the men accused of trying to blow up planes with liquid explosives: on the face of it, that's business as usual. But a lot of people have pointed out that binary liquid explosives, where two innocuous and stable liquids are combined to make a deadly high explosive, are actually less a chemical reality and more a popular but fictional Hollywood movie plot. Yes, binary liquid explosives exist, but no, they are not made by adding either Oasis or Tang to anything. The approximate steps involved are mocked very professionally here.
It's one thing to lock up a man because he wants to kill the president with a handkerchief; it's another to believe that the president's life was in danger. Planning to blow up a plane is appallingly anti-social, and fits most people's definition of evil. But it's important not to confuse how evil someone is with how much of a genius they are. Just because these would-be terrorists fit the movie stereotype of having brown skin and Arabic names doesn't mean they also have the resources and technical know-how of movie terrorists. No, much more likely is that a handful of Al Qaida wannabes were going through the motions - doing what they're supposed to by appearing to threaten airplanes - without any real capability or rigour. I mean, if I wanted to blow up a plane, I'd do it with one of those rocket launchers you balance on your shoulder... from the ground. They're kept under a lot less security than planes, and the beauty is that you don't have to show your passport - or worse still stand within the blast radius - if you want to use one.
So while it's all very well to confiscate every tube of toothpaste and pair of sewing scissors from airline passengers, a partnership needs enthusiasm and commitment on both sides if it's to work. We can double our efforts, and make everyone who even visits (or better still lives near) an airport take off their shoes, but that won't stop Al Qaida getting bored with the idea of planes and going after some much easier and more effective target.
Planning attacks can be boring, and the temptation to inject a little novelty might become overwhelming. What if some lazy terrorist with a short attention span decides that it makes more sense to blow up the houses of parliament where the leaders of the country meet, rather than a plane-load of ordinary people? And what if they decide to use real explosives and not movie ones? (On second thoughts, it's not clear how attacking the British Parliament would have any effect on the War on Terror, but getting into America these days is too much hassle.) But still, the point is that we can't guarantee that terrorism and airline travel will always be synonymous. Anywhere people congregate is a plausible target, and given the funding that American airline companies have received for being 'on the front line' when it comes to terrorism, it's only a matter of time before other transport sectors, and then the food, entertainment and heritage industries fancy a little bit of that government-subsidised security action. Plus, to be honest, a terrorist who can make bombs out of fruit drinks probably has magical powers and won't be stopped by the grumpy and underpaid security staff who work for BAA, so why not let us have clean teeth on the flight while we work on our embroidery unhindered? After all, if a little old lady is forced to sew samplers with a disposable plastic fork and a parched throat haven't the terrorists already won?